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The Trayvon Martin Case: How Has the Sentinel Handled It?

Orlando’s daily gets mixed marks
March 30, 2012

When a big, local story breaks, regional newspapers have the opportunity to own it. The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in an Orlando suburb is nothing if not big. How has the Orlando Sentinel handled it?

Reporting on the shooting began with a print story on February 29th, three 28th, two days after the event, and that article went online the next day under the headline: “Boy, 17, shot to death in Sanford during ‘altercation,’ police say.” Like media outlets across the country, the Sentinel didn’t do another story until Martin’s father made a statement, which the paper covered on March 8th, with “Dad: arrest crime watch volunteer who killed my son.” The 171,000-circulation daily then raised the coverage level, and by March 15th, the Sentinel was publishing multiple stories a day. That quantity has since moved into double digits. On March 28th alone there were over ten stories written, and that’s not counting articles from The Associated Press or opinion columns.

In an interview, John Cutter, associate editor for the Sentinel, says one of the ways the paper has advanced the story is by getting the details of what the shooter—28-year-old George Zimmerman—had recounted about the incident to police. The story, “Police: Zimmerman says Trayvon decked him with one blow then began hammering his head,” was written by Rene Stutzman, the Sentinel’s crime reporter. She’s been covering the Trayvon story a lot for the paper, and was on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program earlier this week, where O’Donnell brought up the above story, and accused her of reporting Zimmerman’s account to police as fact, “without attribution.” Stutzman never really gets a chance to respond—O’Donnell cuts her off multiple times—but she did say she “disagrees,” and says “I think the story is fair and accurate.” The Daily Kos, among others, had an item accusing Stutzman of helping “the Sanford Police do a Cover Up.”

Cutter says he was surprised at the negative buzz around this piece. He saw the first version, which was posted in the morning, and felt the sourcing was “very clear” in that it said “according to police” up high, and then went a few paragraphs before stating the attribution again. “That’s a long-standing thing we do when were trying not to use attribution in every graph,” he said. He says the paper expected to be challenged on this particular story. “We thought we’d possibly be asked, ‘why do you think this person is telling the truth,’” says Cutter. “I know the source, and I was confident that everyone would read this as what the police were saying they were told.”

Cutter says another contribution the paper has made in reporting this case is correcting misinformation that’s been spreading. Indeed, one of Stutzman’s posts, “Trayvon rumors abound, but here are the facts,” addresses false claims that have been circulating about the investigation. Stutzman sources police and a medical examiner in the piece, and though none of her sources are named, it’s the kind of local reporting that’s so necessary in a national, viral story like this one. Stutzman’s rumor’s piece addresses false accusations that the medical examiner refused to release Martin’s body for an unusual length of time; that police neglected to collect key evidence, namely Zimmerman’s clothing; and that Zimmerman wasn’t arrested because he’s related to someone on the police force. Each claim is deflated with reasons from official sources on why these perceptions are false, an important contribution in driving the story closer to the truth.

But the piece also shows the paper’s propensity for according-to-police type reporting. One point that Stutzman attempts to address in the piece with a brief law explainer is more a matter of opinion than rumor. This subhead reads, “Police should have simply arrested Zimmerman and let a judge sort it out.” She goes on to explain why this is a misconception:

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Zimmerman has not been arrested because he told police he acted in self-defense, and then-Chief Lee said police did not have probable cause. Florida Statute 776.032 expressly prohibits police from arresting someone who had a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm. Police may investigate, the statute says, “but the agency may not arrest the person” without probable cause.

But the question behind this “rumor” is at the heart of the story: Why was self-defense deemed a sufficient explanation in the shooting of an unarmed teenager? The determination of probable cause is a complex subject that cannot be dismissed as cut and dried.

This might have been a perfect place for details about police procedures, about the nature and requirements for Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, and other legal and police procedure information the public needs to more fully understand this incident. Cutter said the point was to address the idea that police should have arrested Zimmerman and let the courts decide, a theme he says they’ve heard repeatedly, “Police are not supposed to arrest someone unless they, and the prosecutor, have probable cause.” Cutter concedes that “maybe the answer wasn’t as thorough as it could have been.”

*The Sentinel has taken a closer look at the Stand Your Ground law in earlier articles. In “’Stand Your Ground’ Law: What’s legal?” the Sentinel gives some background about the initial passage in 2005, and its aftermath. This piece also provides a few short answers about the law in a Q and A format. Another article, “Central Florida cops routinely make arrests despite self-defense claims” gives context to the Sanford police officer’s decision not to arrest Zimmerman: “Central Florida police agencies routinely make arrests for murder in ‘stand your ground’ cases — and then let courts decide if a killing is justified,” writes Sentinel reporter Henry Pierson Curtis. The Sentinel’s digging through court records found that “police and prosecutors now file charges more often than not.” However, these analysis pieces aren’t featured on the homepage for their Martin coverage, or linked back to in other posts about the topic. A local paper like the Orlando Sentinel could shine in this area, but overall, in-depth interpretations and analysis take a back seat to incremental updates.

The Sentinel hosted some non-scientific polls about the case on the site— which are quite easy to skew with multiple votes—and while they add a level of interactivity, they do nothing for the story. On March 23rd such a poll asked readers: “Did Sanford Police botch the investigation of the shooting of Trayvon Martin?” There’s a total of 581 responses. 39% chose the option that reads, “Yes. They inexplicably and inexcusably refused to arrest the man, George Zimmerman, who admitted to shooting Trayvon, an unarmed teenager.” 36% said, “No. It’s too soon to pass judgment on the role of the cops or anyone else in the case until more facts are known about it. The investigations are still going on.” On March 29th the Sentinel asks, “Have the media been fair in reporting the Trayvon Martin case?” They got 49 responses this time, but 88% said, “No. Are you kidding? The media tried and convicted George Zimmerman before all of the facts were in, overplayed the racial angle and got played by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.” Given the sensitivity of this topic, and the fact that a family is grieving, it’s hard not to wonder what the Sentinel was thinking would be achieved with these polls, besides click-bait. Cutter says one of the things that made him comfortable with the polls is that people can post comments as well, so there’s room for more nuanced opinion. “People have an expectation with a website that they can participate,” says Cutter.

*The subsequent six sentences were added after the piece was published, to discuss some additional coverage of the Stand Your Ground law that was brought to our attention.

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.